The condition of a soldier who survived for six days under 35 feet of snow in the Siachen Glacier deteriorated on Wednesday but his miraculous rescue could push the frontiers of high-altitude medicine, India’s top military doctor told HT.
Doctors at Delhi’s Army Hospital Research & Referral (R&R) said the next 24 hours were critical for Lance Naik Hanamanthappa Koppad, who continued to be comatose and in shock.
“His (Koppad’s) brain has excessive swelling and his kidneys are severely affected; however age is by his side and if he survives this critical period, he should be able to lead a normal life,” said All India Institute of Medical Sciences director Dr MC Misra, after a panel of experts from the institute visited the hospital.
The military is set to kick off research to examine how Koppad stayed alive under 35 feet of snow – nearly as high as a three-storey building – but his comrades perished, said Lieutenant General BK Chopra, who heads the armed forces medical services.
Experts believe a small air pocket, physical toughness and a strong will to live may have helped him cling to life at a height of 20,500 feet on the planet’s most unforgiving battlefield.
Speaking exclusively to HT, Chopra said, “He had an edge over the others… that X factor. We will carry out a comprehensive scientific study, involving experts in high-altitude medicine, to figure out how Koppad’s body worked in those extreme conditions.”
He said a deeper understanding of the functioning of Koppad’s body would benefit high-altitude medicine specialists and soldiers deployed at frigid heights worldwide. He said the US military was interested in tapping into India’s expertise in high-altitude medicine. India is the only country where soldiers are deployed at heights of more than 21,000 feet.
Koppad was among the 10 soldiers who were presumed dead after a deadly blinding slide struck their post in the western Himalayas on February 3, before army teams pulled him out alive in a dramatic rescue mission on the world’s highest and coldest battleground on Monday.
“Every minute he lives is a miracle. If he survives, he could still be in critical condition for several weeks. I have not seen anything like this in 40 years of service,” said Chopra, who has done multiple high-altitude tenures including one at Siachen.
The soldiers from 19 Madras Regiment were buried after a massive ice wall measuring 800ft by 400ft collapsed on their post. The soldiers were about to complete their 90-day deployment on the glacier.
“He continues to remain extremely critical with evidence of oxygen deprivation to the brain on CT scan. There is evidence of pneumonia in both lungs and his multi-organ dysfunction state continues unabated,” read a defence ministry statement.
As Koppad battled for his life, a woman from Uttar Pradesh offered to donate her kidney and a retired soldier said he was ready to give up any organ of his body to save his “fellow brother”.
An outpouring of prayers and tribute continued on social media, with several Bollywood celebrities, including actors Amitabh Bachchan and Aamir Khan tweeting for him. Mumbai’s iconic dabbawalas also held an event to pray for the soldier.
“We pray for him that protects us in extreme circumstances and serves his country, Prayers for L/N Hunumanthappa and his recovery,” Bachchan tweeted.
Congress president Sonia Gandhi prayed for Koppad’s recovery and said the nation was indebted to him.
“We salute his endurance and will power to serve the nation. True to the glorious tradition of our armed forces, Lance Naik Hanamanthappa has fought against the most challenging circumstances that man can ever face,” she said.
When Koppad was rescued, he was conscious but drowsy and disoriented. He was also severely dehydrated, and had low glucose and oxygen levels. He, however, did not suffer a frost bite or bone injuries.
The doctors in the rescue team resuscitated him with intravenous fluids, humidified warm oxygen and passive external re-warming.
The rescue operation involved more than 200 soldiers, avalanche rescue dogs, helicopters, rock drills, electrical saws and radars that can pick up metallic objects/heat signatures at a depth of 20m.